A Gardener's Guide to "Time"

Given how quickly many gardeners learned and affirmed the gardener’s definitions for “quantities”, it is time to move on to how gardeners define “time”.

So gather around all you new gardeners, here's some insider informaton on the language gardeners use to describe “time”.

But first, remember that it is true what the philosophers tell us, time does stand still in a garden. This fact alone shapes how gardeners define time. So with that in mind, here are four phrases used to define "time" in a garden.

Just a minute

A gardener will often use the phrase “just a minute” to describe the amount of time that it will take to do something simple in the garden that doesn’t require them to change out of their “street clothes” into gardening togs. For example, a gardener might be walking out to her car to go to a movie and see a dead branch in the middle of an otherwise healthy shrub. She’ll then holler out, “I’m going to go get the pruners and trim that branch out before we leave. It will take just a minute.”

But we know from observation that total elapsed time for “just a minute” in a garden is often as long as 30 minutes outside of the garden. This is because the gardener goes to get the pruners, which aren’t where she left them, so she actually goes to find the pruners, and then once she finds them she sees that a few container plantings need some water. No way can she watch a movie knowing plants are suffering from lack of water. And since watering them will also take just a minute, she stops to do that, too. While standing there watering the plant she looks over to see a pretty bloom and accidently waters her shoes which causes her to have to go back inside to put on another pair of shoes. No problem, it will take just a minute!

When she finally goes back outside, she realizes she left the pruners on the other side of the garden where she was watering the containers, so she begins to walk back that way - it will take just a minute, stopping a few times to pull some weeds. Soon she has enough weeds in her hands that she decides to run them back to the compost bin on the edge of the vegetable garden. It will take just a minute. Once in the vegetable garden, she spots an almost perfect tomato, which of course she picks and takes inside. It will take just a minute. Then she remembers the dead branch and goes back out front to cut it back. It will take just a minute, after all. GADS!

It all took “just a minute” and who cares about seeing all those movie previews anyway?

Not long

Gardeners use the phrase “not long” to answer questions about “how long will that take?” For example, how long will it take to dig up that flower bed? Not long. How long will it take to plant those bulbs? Not long. How long will it take to mow the lawn? Not long (No, the answer is not “too long” on that one.) What we really mean by “not long” is that we are willing to forsake housework, laundry, and other mundane activities to work out in the garden. In fact no matter where we are in the process of completing our latest project in the garden, the proper answer to any question about how long it will take, how long until it is finished or how much longer we will be outside in the garden, is “not long”.

In a bit

How often are we gardeners asked by someone outside the garden, “When are you going to stop gardening for the day?” The answer is “in a bit”. We use “in a bit” to indicate that at any time we will be finished in the garden and will come in. It could be in five minutes or it could be in five hours. It is most definitely in a bit. Really, given all that calls out for our attention in the garden, it really is next to impossible to accurately predict when we will call it quits for the day, so we use the standard “in a bit”.


“Later” can be a confusing term for new gardeners because it doesn’t actually describe time in a garden. It describes a time frame outside of the garden. For example, when the sun is shining and the garden is too lovely to leave, the answer to any question about when we are doing to do something that doesn’t involve gardening is “later”. “Later” we will clean house or wash clothes or go pick up little “Johnny” or “Jenny” from school because on nice days, we all know that there is never enough time in the garden. There will be time later in the wintertime, for example, to catch up on all the “out of garden” activities.

I hope these definitions of “time” help new gardeners speak the language of gardeners more confidently. As with the definitions of “quantity”, please do not share this information with non-gardeners. It would take too long to explain it to them! And there is never enough time in the garden as it is, so we don’t need something like explaining ourselves to non-gardeners to distract us. Thank you!


Teresa said…
You are soo right! Every last word is the truth, even as funny as it sounds and is...It is the truth. You really have a handle on gardeners. Fun post to read!
Annie in Austin said…
Your previous post on quantities was funny but it made me feel left out, Carol - apparently I'm too much of a cheap-ass to over-buy garden plants and supplies.

But now you've got my number - any of those on the dial of an analog clock. "Just 15 more minutes" is my personal garden time downfall!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose
Anonymous said…
Oh Gosh, this is really good! I am guilty of all. Mr D rolls his eyes at me with each of these comments cause he knows I'm hopeless at telling time.

Thank you donating to Operation Christmas Child and putting widget on your sidbar. I very much appreciate it.
Town Mouse said…
Yes, that pretty much sums it up. Just a minute has gotten me into trouble more than once.
Anonymous said…
This is so true... I use "in a minute" and "not long" way to often!
I know you have been in each screnario since you nailed each on the head. Yep, I see myself there too. Working for 'just a little while' can lead to a day long project.
Marie said…
This is great. I was laughing and nodding my head all through it. So true.
Entangled said…
Oh my, are we really like that?!? (yeah, I know we are, but still...)
yes i'm guilty of "just a minute" too and can't walk past those plants needing water!
I used to wear a watch that beeped every hour so I could keep track of how much time was elapsing outside of the garden. My family has finally learned about "garden time," so I don't have to wear that watch anymore. They've learned to interpret "in a minute," "just a little while," and "not long."
Darla said…
"Quantity" and "Time" in the garden, there is really never enough of either. Well another great post Carol, glad I took the "time" to read it. For now, I'm going to be in the garden for a "bit".
Carol, you have defined these terms absolutely perfectly, and with great humor and insight.

I have been guilty of using every one of those terms. I wrote a post a while ago about the "just a minute" teminology. You can not only irritate your partner and be late for the movie, you can ruin your carpet too, if you aren't careful about the "just a minute" trap. http://healingmagichands.wordpress.com/2006/11/17/water-on-the-floor-the-prequel/

Thanks for the laugh!
garden girl said…
Ha ha Carol! I've been out in the garden for just a minute this morning for several hours now.
Emilie said…
I do not even say just a minute anymore as my family knows that I mean a hour or more.
Agree one's house suffers when the weather allows one to be outdoors weeding etc. With the rainy days that we have been receiving, I am catching up with housework However ,the sun is now is out and I plan to go outside and pull a few weeds.
Kathy said…
Later=Winter=when I start thinking about cleaning the house.
Beth Botts said…
Now you need to do a new gardener's guide to ''clean.''
Scott & Liz said…
Unfortunately, my dearest Liz has learned the meaning of "in a minute",thus I have been deprived of several meals served hot. GADS, is right!
Mary Delle said…
Carol, oh, soo right. We gardeners have a different sense of time. Gardening doesn't take time. It's endless. Great post!
rambleonrose said…
"Just a minute" and "in a bit" are my most-used phrases, definitely!
Layanee said…
All of that and I am going to plant the bulbs soon... really, soon.
Sue said…
I didn't see the post on quantities yet, but loved this one!
I think these terms are very accurate. I'm glad I'm not the only one that knows that "just a minute" could mean anywhere from a minute to a couple of hours.
So true. And i agree, non gardeners cannot understand them. It is the gardening context they will have to see. Wonderful post.
Jan said…
This post is soooooo true! Just ask my kids (now grown up) and they'll tell you that they never used to get their meals on time because I was too busy in the garden. I'm sure it wasn't as bad as they say though!
Helen said…
Carol, All very true, with one small amendment: all these "times" refer to garden blogging, too. If I spent less time on my computer and more in the garden, I'd have Great Dixter by now... and room for all those "quantities".
Beth Cawein said…
Perfectly perfect! this summer I put a very large clock on the side of my house, but that hasn't really made any difference. I continue to be there for much longer stretches than "just a minute".